Gadgets & Gizmos

We live in the “Information Age.” Our society isn’t hung up on what you can do as much as it is what (or who) you know. A college degree, once the ultimate, nigh-unattainable goal of many has now become standard issue, and more people are pursuing advanced degrees than ever before. Our quality of life and sense of self-worth is largely dependent on how much we know and the nature of the material itself. (For example, knowing about data migration is probably a bit more helpful than learning the migratory patterns of butterflies. At least in certain circles.) And how do we manage all this information we learn, store, and use every day? Technology. Technology is the logical outgrowth of information, for it allows data to be managed and applied. As we learn new principles of biology and engineering, we can craft better prosthetics, drug delivery systems, and surgical techniques, among other things. Information Age cultures are largely driven by wave after wave of technological progress.

This puts the Christian in the interesting position of having to sort out what exactly to do with all of this new tech. Should we embrace each innovation that comes along and delight in progress qua progress, do we adopt only certain inventions which are developed in accordance with strict ethical standards and which can only be used according to a certain ethos, or do we reject new technologies and go back to older ways of doing things? (I admit we could probably fix the road rage problem if everyone had to ride a mule instead of drive an automobile.) Different groups throughout the history of the Church have answered the question in different ways. The first and most obvious is the “Christ Against Culture” mindset of the Amish and Mennonite communities (and my mother’s constant assertion computers are tools of Satan). All technology beyond that achieved by the 17th/18th centuries is eschewed as evil, and an appropriately contemporary German society is promoted as the ideal.

Most of us find that particular solution to be a bit extreme. At the other extreme, then, is the early adoption of all technologies regardless of any external factor. (Think of people waiting in line for weeks to get the latest iPhone. No concern for anything but the phone.) In this view of technology, progress is good because it’s progress. It’s a new way of doing things, and the new way is better. New technology allows for society to progress in other ways: better healthcare, more energy-efficient homes, cheaper clothes, etc. The tech in question could be entirely dependent upon slave labor for its production, or it could have required the death of a human embryo during its research and development phase. Moral and ethical issues simply don’t matter: the technology is the ultimate.

The more balanced middle view takes the ethical concerns into account when considering what technology to promote and what to eschew. If a medical treatment is developed using fetal/embryonic stem cells, it is to be rejected, but perhaps it can be replicated using adult stem cells. If a computer requires child labor, it shouldn’t be bought or even allowed on the market. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to ascertain these particular details most of the time. In our globalized economy, a single gadget or gizmo could need a dozen countries and even more labor forces to be designed, built, tested, and put into mass production, and it would take a great deal of devotion to trace each link in the chain. (But don’t let that stop you from trying when you can!) Elements of stewardship theory make it into the thought process as well. Christians should look for green solutions to transportation (fuel efficient and hybrid/electric vehicles) and other needs in an effort to show God’s love for the world He gave us to care for and steward.

Alright. Say a piece of tech passes the test and makes it into your hands. What can you do with it? The easy answer is “whatever is right, just, and true” (but then you just sound like Superman). Cameras on cell phones, tablet PC’s, and laptops make it much easier to stay in touch with people around the globe. Families connect via Skype or FaceTime, and many companies now conduct interviews over the Internet. But video technology in general can also be horribly abused. Pornography, sexting, and other sexually immoral practices depend upon the wrong use of a technology which can be used in right ways. People can hide behind a keyboard and post things on social media sites which are deliberately inflammatory and personally degrading (or just plain narcissistic) when they would never do so under normal “in-person” conditions. The rise of “stalkers” is also largely contingent upon the misapplication of technological innovations, and the list goes on. It’s important to realize technology in these cases may not be inherently immoral or evil; it’s the intent behind the use of the device.

It’s difficult to think of any invention which is fundamentally evil (although the electric chair leaps to mind fairly quickly). The problem is the person behind the gizmo. We have all sinned and continue to come short of the divine ideal. All of us have sin in our lives, and much of that sin depends on misusing some “thing,” whether it’s the Internet or a piece of paper. As always, the rule of thumb is to listen to the Holy Spirit and to evaluate the impact the tech will have on our walks with God. If we get addicted to the Internet, a television show, or something more sinister, we’ve walked away from God a bit. If we violate someone’s privacy or watch someone violate his/her body, then we walk away from God a bit more. By being open to the guidance of God and making deliberate decisions incorporating a Christian ethic, we can be sure to adopt helpful technological innovations and put them to use in the edification of the kingdom of God on earth.

Frequently Asked Questions #2: “Can I do ___?”

Another question I routinely get asked is one everyone — myself included — has asked on numerous occasions: “Can I do ____?” This inevitably seems to lead to self-justification and nuancing of exactly what we were asking. “Oh, I didn’t mean that. Everyone does that . . . right? So what I really meant to ask was if I can do <minutely modified version of original action>. So, can I?”

Entire books have been written on this sort of thing, and most of them are directed at teenagers and young adults, it seems to me. Most people who grew up in church or around other Christians know you’re not supposed to have sex before you’re married, but that seemingly simple rule had caused gallons of ink to be spilled in attempts to pin down what exactly it does and doesn’t mean. If standard vaginal intercourse is right out, what about other specific intimate acts? And what happens after marriage? Does that give the married couple free reign to do anything they please, regardless of violence, humiliation, or other considerations?

“Can I do ____?” is an entire industry. The problem, of course, is it’s the wrong question to ask (or at least it is nine times out of ten, in my opinion). And we all know how perfectly useless it is to know the right answer to the wrong question. (I personally thank Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for getting that message through to me.) When we make our religion a series of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” we turn it into a legal code. Legalism, the name we give to this sort of behavior, has always been a serious problem for Christianity, but it seems to have really blossomed over the last century or so. Certain theological movements and denominations can be worse for this than others, and it creates a bit of tension between Christians. (“They believe you can do X, but I think you can’t. I believe we can do Y, but they don’t.” You get the idea.) Denominations have undergone complete schisms because of this attitude. Legalism takes a religion based upon love and holiness and turns it into a set of rules. Then people who live by the rules without having a personal relationship with the risen Lord think they’re still okay soul-wise. It’s a serious problem.

I do want to be perfectly clear, however, about what I’m saying here. I’m not advocating for some sort of antinomianism or hedonistic/humanistic Christianity where anything goes. We do have rules, and we do advocate people follow them. The Bible makes this explicitly clear. The problem arises when the rules become the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. A relationship with God, personal holiness, saving faith — these are the main thing. The main thing is not legalism.

Similarly, I’m not jumping on the “Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship” bandwagon so popular among evangelicals today. It’s rubbish. A religion is a means of thinking about divinity and the interaction between humanity and deity. Christianity is definitely a religion, and Jesus Christ very much founded a religion when he and the Holy Spirit established the Church. The Christian religion has done amazing things as a religion, and it’s done horrific things as a religion. Regardless, it’s still a religion. Now, I understand what these guys are saying. They’re decrying the empty rituals, the hollow rites, the mindless adherence to church protocol which can come out of a religion being followed just because it’s a religion. I get that, and I’m on board with you 100%. Going through the motions — a form of legalism, if you will — won’t cut it, either, no matter how many times you flawlessly recite the creed, genuflect in front of the crucifix, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. All of these things must be done out of faith stemming from one’s relationship with God lest they be futile human actions. When infused with faith, all the trappings of religion come alive. So when I say the “Can I do ____?” question is the wrong one because it’s legalism vs. relationship, I’m not throwing out ritual, rite, ceremony, or anything else, even though they can become empty legalism themselves (as can about anything else).

With that said, legalism is still the wrong way to look at our faith. We don’t need to base our entire view of our religion on a yes/no dichotomy. Instead, we base it on our experience with Jesus Christ. As we grow in faith, love, and holiness, we draw closer to God. We more readily discern His will, and we’re more sensitive to the internal promptings — the “still, small voice” — of the Holy Spirit who dwells within each believer. In turn, this closeness comes out in the way we act. Instead of trying to walk a fine legal line, God shows us in our very thought processes and gut instincts what we should and should not do. God didn’t give us a thousand-paragraph legal code with two additional volumes just for footnotes (although I’m sure some people would argue the 613 commands in the Mosaic Law can come pretty close at times). What God did give us was a comforter, an encourager, and a moral guide. The Holy Spirit directs our steps the same way Scripture acts as “a light unto [our] path.” As we live in this grace-filled relationship, we occasionally stumble and cross a line, but mercy and healing follow as we ask them from a loving God.

The next time you’re tempted to turn a matter of faith or behavior into a “Can I do ____?” situation, stop for a moment. Pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Set aside a legalistic mindset and embrace a relationship with the God of grace and love. Then act in a way which is biblical, is consistent with the will of God, and is respectful/loving of yourself and your fellow human beings. Above all, realize it’s probably the wrong question to ask anyway. The right question is, “Will this help or hinder my relationship with God?”

The right answer to the right question is something always worth knowing.

On Humanity

Whenever we engage culture, we interact with systems and artifacts which are inherently human. The trappings of culture are human constructs, and they reflect the humanity of their creators. We often think of this as true especially in regards to art. “Art imitates life,” we say, and it’s largely true. Music, visual art in all media, literature, and dance all serve as external projections of our internalized human-ness. We wouldn’t write horror stories or watch people of dubious intelligence make really questionable decisions in horror films (does anyone really make sound choices when being chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac?) if some part of our human nature didn’t possess a penchant for the macabre — and violence, blood, gore, and the rest of it. The inverse is also true: the good guys (almost) always win in all of our stories because we value goodness, courage, and self-sacrifice. Artists create surreal images and breathtakingly graceful sculptures because of the human desires for both the grotesque and the beautiful. Culture is both the result of human nature and a lens through which we view it.

Scripture has much to say about humanity, about who we really are. (We’ll tackle art in later posts.) Beginning in Genesis 1, we find we are beings created in the image of God (the imago Dei). This is restated in Genesis 2, most poignantly in vv. 7ff. To be human, then, is to bear the imago Dei. In some fashion, we all share in the divine. To be fair, the exact nature of the imago Dei we bear can depend on how one views the creation narratives. Proponents of evolution (theistic or otherwise) may see things differently than a kind of creationist, young earth or otherwise. Regardless, theologians can readily point to several key aspects.

The first is a relational nature. Genesis 2, in explaining the creation of Eve and purpose of marriage, simply says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18a). Humans are relational, gregarious creatures. We weren’t designed to spend our lives in isolation, never loving or caring for anyone else. Humans were created to get outside of themselves, to seek community and live lives connected one to another. In this way, we mirror the nature of God. As Christians, we believe God exists as a Trinity: three distinct Persons, coequal in power and majesty, forming one God. The word theologians use for the relationship between the Persons of the Godhead is perichoresis. If you look closely, you’ll notice the same root we use for “choreography.” The Trinity dances with Itself, eternally existing as a relationship. And because God is a relationship seeking a relationship, we are made to exist in relationships. The first relationship is that between mortal and deity, but it extends to the connections between mortal and mortal as well. Part of the image of God is relationship.

A second aspect is that of authority. After creating humans, God gives what is called the Creation Mandate or Dominion Mandate: the newly-formed humans are to exercise authority over the rest of creation, caring for it and tending to its needs as benevolent rulers. Genesis 2 expands on this after detailing the Garden of Eden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (2:15). Among other implications (the significance and holiness of work, the need to care for the environment, etc.), we see Adam (later joined by Eve) as being a caretaker. Humans weren’t tasked with being tyrannical despots bent on consuming everything for their own gain; we were created as gardeners, not soldiers. We exert authority in the context of relationship as stewards. And so we have the second part of the imago Dei: just as God rules us with grace, we take care of the earth in love.

Other aspects of the image of God appear as well. Rational thought and free will are perhaps the most noteworthy, and I think they stand on their own without additional explanation. All of these (and perhaps others) combine to reveal to us a species which is a partaker in the divine. We were good and holy, having no barriers between us and God.

Then someone let a snake into Paradise.

Theologians have battled for centuries (if not longer) over the exact consequences of the Fall. When our first parents sinned, they destroyed the perfect peace which had existed between a sinless God and His sinless children. But what does that look like? Most Christians agree on the doctrine of Total Depravity: we have been horrifically marred by sin in such a way we can’t know God without His direct intervention. We have no way to pull ourselves up out of sin without help. The image of God granted to us is distorted — but it can be fixed. Calvinists call it common grace, and Wesleyans dub it prevenient grace; call it what you will, it is the universal grace given to all humanity which repairs us enough to be able to know God. Some of our damage is patched up, and we can respond to God’s offers of salvation. We may still be in the gutter, but (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde), we can turn over on our backs and look at the stars. The “grace that goes before” repairs the imago Dei so that the effects of original sin are mitigated to an inherent predisposition to sin and an inability to save ourselves; it doesn’t remain a total brokenness.

Knowing who we are, how should a Christian think about being human? Do we embrace a fully humanist stance which is focused on the dominance of the self to the exclusion of some less-than-desirable realities, or do we realize the value of humanity even as we acknowledge our fatal flaws? I believe Scripture points us to the latter. We can’t pretend everything we do is good and right simply because we thought of it. We remain fallen creatures who create fallen cultures (and no, not even “church culture” is perfect in any sense of the word). We can’t be afraid to label evil as evil, nor can we sit on the sidelines with an “anything goes” attitude. To do so is to gravely misunderstand the true nature of humanity and human freedom.

We must constantly evaluate who we are and what we do, letting our identity rest in Christ and not some external relationship. We are beautiful creatures who bear the image of God Almighty. Because of this, all human beings have inherent worth and dignity. Everyone is worthy of respect, and everyone possesses both good and bad qualities. No one is worth more than anyone else, and God doesn’t love anyone more than anyone else — and (let’s be clear), He hates no one at all. Christianity calls us to value the worth of our brothers and sisters, recognizing they will never be perfect — and neither will we.

Imperfections and flaws are fundamentally different from diversity, and, as Christians, we are to value, not merely tolerate, the grand diversity of the people around us. Rather than seek to eliminate cultural differences, why can’t they be celebrated as simply alternate solutions? We must prize what makes us British, American, Rwandan, Argentinian, and Korean. At no point are we called to dismiss others as irrelevant or inferior; at all points are we called to display unconditional love and tolerance. This is the sort of love which recognizes no boundaries: all races, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all nations are comprised of people of inherent worth in the eyes of God, and each individual still bears His image.

Do we lovingly critique cultures and individuals running counter to God? Yes; true love offers corrections and seeks the eternal good of all people. But never do we make someone feel less than a beloved child of God simply for being different. We’re just as broken as they are. Respect, love, and tolerance. Respect people for who they are; love people where they are; and tolerate them for the beautiful diversity they bring to the common table of humanity.

Frequently Asked Questions #1: What about the Old Testament?

A side series on this blog is titled “Frequently Asked Questions.” In these F.A.Q. posts, I’ll address questions I get quite often from various people.

Probably the number one question I get asked about Christianity isn’t anything about the gospel, the deity of Jesus, or anything like it. The most frequently asked question I receive is “What about the Old Testament?”. It’s easy to see where this one comes from. Christians consider themselves under the plan of salvation and the lordship of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament, but we also say our holy writings contain the Old Testament record of Yahweh’s relationship with the Hebrew/Jewish people. What, then, is the relationship between the two? Do we have to follow the law of Moses, or do we discard it entirely — or is there a third way?

I think one reason we’re hesitant to make full use of the Old Testament is because many people, following an early church heresy called Marcionism, see the God of the OT as a separate, distinct God from the one of the NT. The OT God created the world — then destroyed it in water. He tried to get Abraham to sacrifice the son He had promised to him. He became a genocidal deity who ordered the mass murder of entire people groups in order to give the Israelites the Promised Land. Noted militant atheist Richard Dawkins famously wrote this in The God Delusion:

 “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

 Many people, though they disagree with Dawkins’ atheism, still feel some sort of sympathy for his assessment. How could a God who truly loves His creation commit the seemingly atrocious actions recorded in the OT? It doesn’t get any easier when we read in the NT that God is love (1 John 4:8) in such a way that He sent His only son to die for our sins (John 3:16, Romans 5:8). How can this possibly be the same God?

So, like Marcion of old, these people throw out the whole testament, saying it doesn’t reveal a true Christian God. (Others, as one friend famously phrased it, think God “really mellowed out after He had a kid.”) The cognitive dissonance, the tension of holding OT God and NT God as one figure is extreme.

Then there’s the whole matter of the law. If we live under grace and not law, as Paul writes in Romans and elsewhere, why do we even need to keep the Torah around? It’s not binding for us; it’s just a historical curiosity of sorts. We don’t have to offer sacrifices, or ritually bathe to cleanse ourselves of impurities, or drill holes in the ears of the slaves who don’t want to leave us. Salvation comes by grace through faith, not by obedience to a rigorous set of 613 separate commandments. So why keep them in the Bible? Why pay any attention to them whatsoever?

The main reason is because Jesus himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). At the very least, this means we can’t remain ignorant of the law; it should still exist and be part of our history and our faith. When Christ says he fulfilled the law and the prophets, however, it means that we can’t do it ourselves. The sacrificial system was completed by a single blood sacrifice, the shed blood of a God-man (Hebrews 10 [esp. v. 10]). The law requiring blood atonement wasn’t dismissed; it was fulfilled to the utmost.

Christ himself, before his crucifixion and resurrection, quoted the Old Testament with regularity. The same is true of many authors of the Old Testament. Even the order of the gospels is due to the use of the Old Testament in the NT. Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience, and so he quotes Isaiah and other prophets regarding the coming Messiah in order to show how Jesus fulfills those prophecies. In short, Matthew uses the OT to prove the central message of the NT: Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Son of God. And so his gospel is placed next to the OT in your Bible (and in mine, too). Paul’s epistles do the same thing; Hebrews uses the priestly imagery of Leviticus; the General/Catholic Epistles mention Noah, Moses, and others; and Revelation borrows some of the imagery from Daniel. In short, we also keep the Old Testament around because so much of it is in the New and shaped its authors, texts, and foundation.

Alright; we still have the OT. But what do we do with it?

The law was fulfilled, and we live under grace. Just so. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn from the underlying principles of the OT in the age of the Church. It’d be pretty hard for most of us to deliberately leave part of our grain crops behind so others can glean the leftovers in accordance with Leviticus 19:9,23:22 or Deuteronomy 24:19-21, for example, but we can still show hospitality and love for visitors and immigrants. We look at the view of women (revolutionary for its time) and realize we need to take steps towards gender equality and reconciliation. We see rules made to set apart a people from other cultures and create a community of faith, and we continue to live Christian lives different from the moral standards of our surrounding world. All of these guiding principles are reappropriated in the Church, and we as believers still follow the guides set forth in the Mosaic Law, the Prophets, and the rest of the OT.

Of course, anything explicitly restated in the NT still goes, too: laws regarding murder, sexual sin, lying, etc.

Christians should find a faithful friend in the Old Testament, just as in the rest of Scripture. God still uses the OT to speak to us and provide us with guidance and identity. And if you look closely, you will see a loving God of grace readily apparent even in the Old Testament’s darkest moments.

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24-26